Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Original Screenplay, On the Waterfront is a classic for all time. A black and white film from 1954, it was filmed on the seaside loading docks of New York. The gritty story is still significant today; only the players have changed.
Terry (Marlon Brando) and his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) have gotten mixed up with Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who terrorizes the longshoremen in the union. The corrupt union bosses run the show and says who will and will not work each day, essentially owning them and ignoring any rights the union has granted them.
Terry unknowingly leads a man to his death at the hands of the thugs who are loyal to Johnny Friendly, and Edie (Eva Marie Saint), the man’s sister, is on a mission to find the murderers. Terry falls in love with Edie and their tentative relationship is romantic and sweet. Father Barry (Karl Malden) becomes involved fighting the union bosses out of a social conscience, liberally augmented by his Catholicism. He riles up the men working on the docks to stand up to Johnny Friendly and his thugs. This only increases the bloodshed.
Elia Kazan directed the film, and I watched an extra feature on the DVD to learn more about the film and the times in which it was made. There was a fascinating piece interviewing mostly Rod Steiger and James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio, about the famous scene between Charley and Terry, who was a former boxer, in the taxicab. “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,” Terry tells him. A powerful scene between the two brothers and a movie line that is repeated again and again was born.
In a biography of Marlon Brando I read that he didn’t really hold acting in such high esteem and only did it for the money. If that is true, what he did for the money was of such high quality, you just know he gave every performance all he had.
The other Academy Awards handed out were to Eva Marie Saint for Best Supporting Actress, Best Director for Elia Kazan, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Film Editing. Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay.
On the Waterfront is one film you should watch if you haven’t seen it already, or watch again if you saw it years ago. The message is still relevant to today. The corrupt union bosses, and the crime they brought with them, has been replaced by large corporations who still rob workers of their rightful wages and their rights as workers, and their right to be treated with humanity. The greed of Johnny Friendly equals the greed of any CEO of any corporation that exists today. Working class people just want to live, support their families and experience love like anyone else. On the Waterfront confronts the corrupt system, but who will confront corruption today? Each one of us.